Why Movement Is So Important With Arthritis
It is estimated there are more than 8.5 million people in the UK living with osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is a condition in which the protective cartilage between the joints begins to break down, causing pain, stiffness and lack of mobility in the joints.
There are a variety of treatments for osteoarthritis but a recent guideline released by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends keeping joints moving could be one of the best forms of management for the condition.
But how can you move joints when it hurts? Versus Arthritis are the UK’s largest arthritis charity who pride themselves on supporting those with arthritis, raising awareness around the condition, providing support and information as well as campaigning for better care.
We caught up with Versus Arthritis’ Head of Strategic Physical Activity Programme Kelly Harman to better understand the importance of moving arthritic joints.
How Movement Helps Arthritis
For many it will feel counterintuitive to force stiff and painful joints to move, but there is science behind this thinking. The more you move a joint the more you strengthen the muscles around it, building strength to support that joint and bring in essential nutrients by keeping the synovial fluid moving.
“If you can start to move those joints and work through the initial pain barrier you will begin to feel less pain,” says Kelly.
Pain & Gain
Recent NICE guidelines highlight that healthcare professionals should ideally be prescribing movement over traditional painkillers such as paracetamol and opioids. But for some, finding something that can take the initial pain away and allows them to get moving could be the answer.
“Physical activity and other forms of wellbeing are really important, but they are just one component to a person’s overall health,” says Kelly. “If a person really needs pain relief then they should absolutely take it. The point of movement over painkillers is to promote physical activity and showcase the benefits it can have for those living with arthritis.”
In a recent study conducted by Versus Arthritis, 70% of people said that if they do just 10 minutes walking in the morning their joints feel better for the rest of the day. Our natural response to pain and exhaustion is to stop and rest, so when living with the daily pain and fatigue of arthritis many people are understandably put off the idea of exercising. It can be hard to believe that exercise will make you feel better.
But evidence shows not only that exercise is safe for people with arthritis, but it is one of the best ways to reduce the impact of arthritis. Our bodies are designed to move and resting for too long can weaken and stiffen joints, making pain worse in the long term. Movement and many weight-bearing or resistance exercises help maintain all round body strength, and if we can achieve this, especially around a joint, we can reduce the pressure and strain in that area, resulting in less pain.
Language Matters: Movement, Not Exercise
Many people hear the word exercise and assume they need to go out and buy running shoes or a gym membership. “We wanted to really look at the language that is being used,” says Kelly. “We’re not talking about exercise as most people think of it nor are we talking about fitness. We’re talking about people moving in a way that is good for them. And that will always be unique to the individual.”
Another key stat that Versus Arthritis have recently uncovered - in their 2019 Physical Activity Scoping Research - is 25% of people with arthritis had actually been told by their healthcare professional that movement was bad for joint pain and should be kept to a minimum.
“A big piece of what we do at Versus Arthritis,” says Kelly, “is working with our professional engagement team to really upskill as many healthcare professionals as possible around physical activity, and then to signpost to all the resources we’ve made that can help those with joint pain get moving. Physical activity doesn't have to be hitting the gym or running a marathon; it can be going for a very gentle walk every day, and it can make all the difference.”
Small Changes Big Rewards
As technology becomes more advanced, people become more sedentary. This is because everything is right there for us, so we spend too much time sitting down. This is especially true after the recent lockdown in which people weren’t even moving to get into work.
“It’s about educating people on how they can move, but also ways of moving that can be easily incorporated into their everyday lives,” says Kelly. “Little changes you can make can have huge benefits if you keep doing them. So rather than hopping in the car to go to the local shop, walk there if you’re able. Ten years ago, as a nation we were focussed on structured activity and sport - but that’s changed. Now we better understand how even little things like gardening or cleaning the house can be great ways to keep moving. It’s easy to take that for granted but when you get moving you will start to feel the difference.”
Build Good Habits
In order to create good habits, we must first identify the behaviours we want to change, for example being more active. Then we need to explore what types of activity we enjoy doing and what feels good for our bodies. Then we need to continue to repeat and repeat the activity for it to become a habit and make that lasting change.
“I’ve worked with a great GP called Dr. William Byrd who is very well known in the physical activity sector and has been key in the work we’ve done,” says Kelly. “He always says, try and do a little more than you did yesterday, then you will start to see the benefits of moving more. And if you can build on that going forward you will really start to see how much it can benefit painful joints.
“If you can get your heartrate up just a little bit, that is so good for physical and mental wellbeing. For those with joint pain we want to help them move in ways that are good for them and will greatly benefit their overall joint, physical and mental health.”
Kelly’s Top Three Tips To Get Moving
- 1. Listen To Your Body
“Think about what you’re able to do because there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to moving with joint pain. You know your body better than anyone, so listen to it and think about how much movement you can do.”
- 2. Find Something You Enjoy
“If you find something you enjoy doing it’s going to help you form that good habit going forward. There is no point forcing yourself to do something that you absolutely detest, because in the long run you will not keep doing it. So find something you enjoy.”
- 3. Peer Support
“Try and find an activity you can do with others. When you have that peer to peer support and encouragement, it inspires you to want to do it. For many this can be a highlight of the week, getting to see the people they enjoy spending time with and helping each other to keep doing it. The great thing about movement is you can do it while having a chat with your friends which will then benefit mental health going forward.”
Are you struggling to move with joint pain and arthritis? Versus Arthritis have a host of resources available that can help you. Head to their website to learn more and let us know on Facebook how you stay moving with arthritis.